By Dr. Linda Clark Ashar | 11/16/2020
The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to adapt operations nearly overnight. In this episode, APU business professor Dr. Linda Ashar talks to Dan Cwalina, the CEO of Lormet Community Federal Credit Union, about his experience leading an essential business through the pandemic. Learn how everything changed on March 9, 2020 – a day he equates with 9/11 – and how communication, transparency, flexibility, creativity, unity, and strong technological infrastructure helped this financial institution adapt its business model to operating in a new normal.
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Dr. Linda Ashar: Welcome, everyone. This is Linda Ashar, your host for this podcast. I am pleased to have with us today, Daniel Cwalina, CEO of Lormet Community Federal Credit Union, an Ohio business. Dan has graciously agreed to share with us his frontline experience as a business leader in facing the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 in 2020.
To give you a little background on Dan, he is a successful CEO who is an accomplished visionary leader, attorney, accountant, and he is a seasoned strategic executive with 33 years of progressive financial business and leadership experience. Responsible for the development, implementation, execution and organizational performance of Lormet Community Federal Credit Union, his areas of expertise are many, and that’s why I’m so pleased to having him today.
Among many things that he has to his credit, we include strategic planning, market analysis, leadership development, regulatory compliance, change management, risk mitigation, and business expansion. And all of these things came to the fore when he had the challenges that we’ve all had this year with the COVID-19. And additionally, Dan is very active in the community and civic affairs and is a very valued member of his community. So Dan, thank you for giving us your time today.
Daniel Cwalina: Thank you, Linda.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Before we get into our discussion today about managing a business in a pandemic, give us a little background on your business so that we have a context for the things that you did and experienced this year.
Daniel Cwalina: Absolutely. Thank you, Linda. Lormet Community Federal Credit Union is a financial cooperative. It was founded in 1936 to serve the steel mill workers in Lorain County. Lorain County is a manufacturing region in the Midwest, northeast, Ohio. And throughout the years, our organization has transitioned from a skilled trade service cooperative offering financial services to the skilled-trade community, to a full-fledged community-based financial institution.
And as I mentioned, we were founded in 1936. We have been through a very challenged region known as the Rust Belt, now the Midwest. Most of our manufacturing has gone; and we are a thriving community-based cooperative, now serving 21,000 members with over $210 million in assets.
And when I began in 1997, we were a small organization. The steel mill once employed over 17,000 workers and the steel mill is now closed. So we made that transition. We have four full-service locations, much like any other community bank or banking institution that anyone’s ever seen before—all products, certificates, checking accounts, home equity loans, car loans, vehicle loans, recreational, any type of product that you would find at any other for-profit institution. All the electronic access points such as Google Pay, Apple Pay, all ATM access drive through.
Daniel Cwalina: So for all practical purposes, we are a full service banking institution that you’ve seen anywhere else. The difference is, we’re a cooperative. Our Board of Directors are volunteers and we are here to serve our retail members. Each member of our credit union is an owner. So our foremost focus is to serve our base and that’s our strategy, that’s our goal.
And we have been successfully growing in this challenged market for the last 23 years. We’re doing very well as an organization and we’ve met the challenges of COVID head-on.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, you certainly have a lot of experience with leadership and you’ve just described some changes that you’ve had to go through with the credit union due to other challenges that have happened over the years. Have you experienced anything like this pandemic before?
Daniel Cwalina: I have never experienced anything like this pandemic. Now, as part of our contingency, disaster planning and being a strategist, being a leader, we try to prepare for everything we can prepare for.
We’ve had pandemic policies that were common with the bird flu virus many years ago. And we had everything in place. But until you experience something like this, you have no comprehension of the challenges and the remodeling and the fears and anxieties.
This was completely on the scale of 9/11 for us. That’s what I could draw this experience to. We were completely unprepared for something this large.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Yeah. And that stuck with me. And when we were speaking before this podcast, you mentioned that March 9th was a day like 9/11 and you just mentioned 9/11 again. That’s a very dramatic statement.
And I don’t for a minute suggest it’s an understatement. I think it hit everybody like that. When you first heard about the pandemic right at the beginning of March, had you had any clue ahead of time that this was coming?
Daniel Cwalina: Yes, we did. We are watching New York. New York was the epicenter. New York borders Ohio. So there was a concern and we were paying close attention to what was happening in New York. And we were, of course, dialing into anything that we can find online to learn more about this, the concerns.
And we were trying to determine what source we should follow. We were following the World Health Organization, CDC. We were trying to gather as much information as we could. However, there was a lot of conflicting information at that time, as there is today. So it was a period of true concern.And on March 9th, when Governor DeWine issued a state of emergency, it brought the threat right to our organization, right into our homes. As business leaders, as employees, as family members, it was real, it was here.
And I recall watching the press reports each day at two o’clock the conferences that Governor DeWine had. And we watched him every day and we listened, and we hinged on every word. It was a very concerning time for all of us. We were concerned. We saw what happened in New York, we were watching it. Were we next? Where we going to be the next epicenter?
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, what specifically were you seeing in New York at that time?
Daniel Cwalina: Just the COVID numbers and nursing home deaths. We were paying attention to the amount of patients that were unable to be cared for, everything. Just the worst case scenario.
And on March 9th, when our governor came out, the statistics were very low. We had a few cases in Ohio. It wasn’t anything like we have seen anywhere else on some of the hotspots, but we had to ask ourselves, “Were we next? Without any containment, without any vaccines what’s to stop that virus from taking over our state much like others?”
Dr. Linda Ashar: During the week of March 12th, the markets shut down, didn’t they?
Daniel Cwalina: They did, which from a financial institution standpoint, it was very concerning to us. At that point in time, there really wasn’t a directive from our governor stating that the banks and credit unions were going to be able to stay open. We all heard the word “shutdown.”
We were reading the health order and it took some time for the governor to come out with. It seemed like forever at that point in time, because at that moment we had many of our customer members coming in and they started to withdraw large sums of money. And as a financial institution, our deposits are lent out; 80% of our deposits are lent out.
And so it was historical run on the bank, run on the money. And that was very concerning to us. So it was a period of high anxiety. There was a stay-at-home order. We ourselves knew we’re essential.
We knew stimulus money was eventually going to be paid out. It just had to be when you have a shutdown order; you have to. And so we had to be available for our member base. We had to be here, and they had to know that their finances were available to them. But until the governor came out and he had stated that banks and credit unions were going to be open. The market shutdown, the stay-at-home order, it created a lot of concern and anxiety with ourselves as employees of this financial institution and with our membership at large.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So at some point then did you declare the credit union an essential business?
Daniel Cwalina: Yes, we did. There wasn’t a formal process. There was so much confusion. This happened so fast that there appeared to be through the Department of Labor an application process and all of us were concerned.
From March 9th to March 23rd, there was so much information put out in such a short period of time. It wasn’t as clear as it could have been—and we understand why. This was unprecedented. The last time we saw this was 100 years earlier. So we had read of course, all the orders, and we did our research and we contacted our corporate attorneys, and we did declare ourselves an essential employer.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Explain for our listeners what it meant to be an essential business at that point.
Daniel Cwalina: Well, an essential business was a business that truly had to be operational. It was a business that we could not really allow our staff to work from home with the expertise that they have to provide financial services to our membership base, much like a grocery store.
Having access to your finances, to pay your bills, to support your family — that is an essential function in one’s life. And we are an essential service provider.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Okay. So we have a shutdown order from the governor of the state, which that meant businesses had to close. Am I right?
Daniel Cwalina: That is correct.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Okay. So essential businesses then were businesses that would be exempt from having to shut down.
Daniel Cwalina: That is correct. We had to establish ourselves as an essential business and we had to analyze our business model and through a process of evaluating, once again the products and services you offered, were we an essential business? Much like first responders, grocery stores, banking is definitely an essential business.
Now, the issue that we had is, there was a stay-at-home order for all workers. And that’s where this became a little challenging because, of course, there was heightened fear. There wasn’t anybody in our organization who didn’t have an at-risk family member or concerns for their own well-being that wanted to take on that unnecessary risk while this information was fresh.
New York was the epicenter and never before, Linda, did we as an organization have to be concerned with a virus and possibly death by just showing up to work.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Right.
Daniel Cwalina: This was unprecedented. So, it was a challenge for us to speak to our staff and say, “We’re going to follow all CDC guidelines, we’re going to follow World Health Organization guidelines. We have to be here; we can’t work from home; you have a special skillset.”
Banking is very specific. It takes a lot of training and a lot of expertise. And it’s not something that we can of course delegate from home.
So in that situation, it took many conversations, easing the fears of the staff, talking about the functions we had to provide.
When you’re thinking about people you live with, people that you know, your parents, your children, and being concerned with bringing that virus home. So that was the big challenge of the stay-at-home order for an essential business such as ours.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So how did the employees respond, initially?
Daniel Cwalina: Well, we were all very concerned. Everybody, myself included, the management team. We were all very concerned.
The directives from the governor were very good, but they were quick. There was a lot of interpretation, we had to move fast. We were all fearful, but we knew we had to be here. So, we have a collaborative organization and we have an organization that operates with empathy. We have many open meetings and we ask for input.
So when we declared ourselves an essential business and we knew we had to be here, we were able to bring our staff together and talk to our staff.
One of the critical strategies that we had is that we were going to close our lobbies. We were going to mitigate the risk.
We were going to minimize our contact with the outside.
We were going to follow sanitation guidelines.
We were going to practice distancing.
We were going to do everything we needed to do.
Daniel Cwalina: And when we had these meetings with staff — and I had these meetings personally — we are very fortunate to have an organization with 42 full-time equivalent employees, some part-time, but as far as equivalency it’s 42 employees. Four locations.
These conversations took place in-person and direct. It was key that we had to be visible. It was key that we didn’t have all the answers, but we are working on it together.
That’s where I see leading through a pandemic; that’s the way it should be handled.
With an organization our size, it worked because we had the culture of an openness, of transparency. We collaborate regularly.
So the staff knew that we were doing everything we could, including ourselves. We were concerned ourselves. We were doing everything that we had to do. And it was an adjustment period. It was still a very alarming time for all of us.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So you were continuing to be open, but the lobbies were closed. That was a reorganization in itself for how to manage the business. How did you do that?
Daniel Cwalina: Fortunately, once again, fortunately, we have full-service locations. We always saw the value during the growth and from Lormet as an $85 million organization growing to a $210 million full-service financial institution that we needed, full-service access.
Full-service access, for us, involved having drive-throughs. Other financial institutions have small centers in grocery stores. Other financial institutions didn’t see the need — not all, some — for drive-throughs. But fortunately, since we took a traditional position on our growth over the past 23 years, we saw that as a necessary service delivery channel. So for us, we had those drive-throughs there.
Now, one of the things that we did, to make sure that our staff felt completely comfortable, is we did remodel. We remodeled our business model — and that’s my reference to changing how we operate —i s we had one person sanitizing all the drive-through tubes. We had another person putting the drive-through tube back in.
So we took it very seriously. We sanitized everything. We conveyed that to our customer members. They had to know that we were taking every precaution that we knew possible.
As you know, Linda, there were people who didn’t believe this, or people who did believe this. And so we had to bring that thought process together by saying, “We’re doing everything we can to protect you.” At the same time we were protecting our staff.
We are creating that comfort level by stating, “We can do this. We can mitigate the risk, we can still be here and provide the services our membership requires.”
Dr. Linda Ashar: So key in just the basic operation of a day, just being organized and showing that it can be done successfully is a very important component of the response to this mess.
Daniel Cwalina: It was, and there wasn’t a handbook. There wasn’t a handbook on this. Most other financial institutions closed their lobbies. We had to limit access and exposure. And that was key. So for banking, I think if you had the drive-throughs, it did create an opportunity for a quick solution.
Dr. Linda Ashar: How did you handle customers who don’t drive? Did they just have to cope themselves by having people that could drive them through?
Daniel Cwalina: I saw the pandemic as a challenge. I saw it as an organizational challenge. Our goal as a smaller financial institution was to succeed, was to provide the same level of service throughout the pandemic than pre-pandemic. So we were very flexible.
What we did is there were people who couldn’t drive or, Linda, as you mentioned, the drive-through transactions are conducive for withdrawals, deposits, and some and notarized documents. But as far as certificates, vehicle loans, home equity loans, and any service that any person was in need beyond the drive-through lanes, those were by appointment.
We did not deny a service for anyone; we kept our distance.
Prior to the social distancing, we were very careful. We had a table in the middle of the lobby that separated us from the member. We had sanitation on each table and we kept our distances because it was just a common-sense approach.
And so we didn’t turn away any person. We were flexible. We opened the doors for people that would call us that needed anything more. We started using the technology for signatures online. So we were able to serve everybody the way they were accustomed to being serviced. We didn’t turn anyone away.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So it sounds to me like your customers must have responded well to this. Did you have any customer issues?
Daniel Cwalina: Linda, I’d have to say that we met the challenges of this pandemic head on. In a matter of three months with stimulus deposits, our organization grew $27 million.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Wow!
Daniel Cwalina: And that’s a combination of stimulus deposits and, of course, consumers not being able to spend with everything shut down. But it also demonstrated to us, there was a trust factor.
We are also able to bring deposits in from other financial institutions who restricted business completely. They didn’t adapt and they weren’t as flexible, in my opinion, as they should have been. Our position of service, we answer the telephone. You don’t call our organization and use an automated attendant.
We had people in our community from other financial institutions where their branches were closed. They didn’t know who to reach, and they had to visit a branch in a neighboring community. And only after finding that location on the internet.
And if you think about how stressful, all the stress points that we’re all dealing with, the last thing you should have to stress about is where your finances are and whether you can talk to somebody who you trusted your financial well-being with.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, that’s a profound statement. Dan, how did the remote access to the bank assist your business during the pandemic?
Daniel Cwalina: In our business model, we felt traditional service is very important. It’s what our membership base appreciates. And we felt that as far as the new generation, the technology generation coming up, it’s essential that we have online banking. We have remote deposit capture, Apple Pay, iPay, because the future of banking are those end users.
So we made sure that our business model incorporates all those technological service touch points. When COVID first hit on March 9th, we began a mass sign-up for online banking and for remote deposit capture. It was an opportunity for a no-touch relationship with your financial institution. And it helped us immensely by having those services and products in place already.
There’s a few competitors out there now that are just trying to launch that product and service, but we had the infrastructure in place and it gave every person a peace of mind, most notably from the onset and the time period where there was a stay-at-home order issued.
Technology is important. We’re going to continue to invest in technology. As a matter of fact, Linda, the timing of this is incredible because Lormet Community Federal Credit Union, we decided prior to the pandemic to start a product, which was instant debit card issue.
Other financial institutions rely on a third party and those cards are mailed from a third party. So in January, prior to the pandemic, this was a goal of ours to be better at what we do to be quicker, to put these debit cards in people’s hands quicker. It couldn’t have come at a better time, not because of the pandemic, because of the post office and being overwhelmed with ballots.
So the technology has helped us. If you lose a debit card or you open an account, we will be able to issue a debit card on site, in-person in the next 30 to 45 days. So technology is critical. It helps you deal with unexpected market forces. Who would have ever thought that on top of the pandemic, that we would have an overwhelmed post office, where it’s taking three to four weeks to get mail at times?
Dr. Linda Ashar: Wow. That’s great. I know that you have a leadership team you work with in your organization. In the beginning when you were starting to put all this in place, how did you decide to implement what you did? And did you engage in ideas that you rejected in favor of other ideas? What was your process?
Daniel Cwalina: Well, it was a quick process. We didn’t have the luxury of time.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Right.
Daniel Cwalina: We had to move very quickly and it was difficult for all of us. We were all fearful. We were all concerned. We’ve never experienced anything like this, but we knew we had to be open.
Banking, first responders, the medical field, we’re all essential. We have to be there. And when you look at the term essential, you have to determine the best way to keep operating.
So we were in autopilot mode, we were reacting quickly. We were concerned, but we weren’t making decisions out of fear. We were fearful, there was no question about it, but we had to set aside our fear. We had to work through it by looking at the statistics, looking at the numbers, paying attention each day to the CDC guidelines, the World Health Organization guidelines, listening to the governor each day and looking at our community statistics.
Lorain County isn’t New York City. Lorain County has a population of 309,000. We had our first death in March. It was somebody the governor knew very well, and he brought that to our attention. It was March 13th and our numbers were lower than some of the epicenters, and some of those other areas that we were seeing in news reports on the internet.
So we are able to taper that somewhat, that fear by stepping back, by managing it, and conditioning ourselves to start looking at the numbers. And that’s how we dealt with it the best we could. And by doing that, we were able to make rational decisions quickly.
Dr. Linda Ashar: You’re well-tuned into the community at large, not just locally, but nationally through a lot of your contacts. What were your observations these past four months, in general, about the response to this pandemic? What are the things you’ve seen that, not in your organization, but because you’ve dealt with that and told us about, but in other businesses and operations at large; what have you seen?
Daniel Cwalina: Here’s my concern. In working, in meeting with the staff and talking these issues out our concerns. There’s so much information out there that you have to have an intuitive feel for what’s happening here.
This pandemic, there isn’t a silver bullet. There’s not an end to it quickly. We have to be able to operate the way we operated before by mitigating risk. I had two family members that were hospitalized. One around March 9th, before this became a serious matter in Ohio.
And my experience then was that there wasn’t anyone at the hospital that could talk to you that can tell you family members were restricted from entering the hospital as a mitigation risk as a safety protocol. And I understand that, but we have an obligation to provide communication, we have to communicate with people. In that scenario, there was no communication whatsoever. It was a phone call once a day, that a family member is in ICU on a ventilator and we will call you. And this is true, if we have time.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Oh, boy!
Daniel Cwalina: That is a true statement. And, Linda, as recent as May, our family had an unfortunate experience where my mother suffered a stroke. She was taken in an ambulance to one of the major hospitals in Cleveland. There are two primary hospitals, and it took seven hours for us to talk to somebody to see how she was. We weren’t allowed at the hospital. We weren’t there.
We have an obligation as essential service providers to communicate, and you have to adapt and be flexible. In my opinion, there’s no excuse not to re-allocate resources and provide services. Services that mitigate risk and protect people, but communication has to be there. We’ve communicated throughout the entire pandemic.
And I feel that we’re missing something. There are still businesses that can communicate, that can adopt safety protocols, but they’re choosing not to.
The concern with the business community is that this pandemic, there isn’t a silver bullet. There’s not an end in sight. We have to find ways to keep the economy moving, to keep our customer members, any business you’re in engaged and communicate. It takes some effort, it takes some time.
Now, granted it may not be conducive for all businesses, but when you evaluate your business model, there are ways that you can adapt and be flexible if the model allows you to do that. But as I mentioned earlier, as far as what we’re doing and how we’re responsive and we’re providing the same services we provided before, there are still other organizations, financial institutions out there that are limiting their hours, they’re limiting their hours and they’re open half a day.
People are stressed. People are having a difficult time dealing with this. Their children are home from school. There’s quite a bit of COVID concern and we have to be available. We shouldn’t be another stress point in everyone’s life.
And I think it, it shows as far as our responsiveness in the community, as far as how our client and member base has brought more resources to us. And during the key COVID times, we achieved record lending totals for June, July, and August, because we were there. And I attribute that to us being there and other organizations pulling back.
Dr. Linda Ashar: I was just going to say, because you were available, because you found a way to continue to be in business.
Daniel Cwalina: We did. And I think what’s really most important is, we did so by mitigating risk. We didn’t take unnecessary risks. That was unacceptable. We’re an organization that we operate with a culture of empathy. We are a family-based organization. We work together. We work to achieve our common goals. And I think it’s key that we didn’t put anyone at risk.
And my position has been always in the organization that there isn’t going to be one department or one group of people that are going to take more risks than anyone else. I know you’ve seen it; we’ve heard it. “We’re in this together.” You hear it everywhere, but we practice that philosophy because we all have to be out there. We have to be doing our jobs independently in the organization, performing our responsibilities; but we also have to be with, and next to, some of the front-line staff members that have a little bit more exposure than anyone else.
But we do, as I said, we do adopt all risk protocols to protect everyone, but it is a supportive organization. And that’s what it’s about.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So I assume that at some point this summer, you must have opened your lobby. It seems that things relaxed a bit. Is your lobby open now?
Daniel Cwalina: It is. And our position on opening the lobby was, we have to have social distancing. Social distancing is required, masks are required. Plexiglass has been installed throughout the entire organization. Hand sanitizer is located at entry points, along with the desks and everywhere else in the organization.
Now, there are certain periods with our organization where we have pension deposits, Social Security deposits, where social distancing is impossible. And on those days, which is usually the first of the month and the third of the month, we are operating in a flexible manner where if we see we can’t social distance, I will close the lobby for that period of time. Because the health and welfare of anyone coming in and along with our staff is our main priority.
So we are open every day, normal business hours. If we experience a time anytime where we can’t social distance, and there is any degree of risks that we feel is against CDC guidelines, that we will close the lobby temporarily until those volumes are down.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Just because too many people are showing up and want to come in?
Daniel Cwalina: Too many people are arriving at the same time.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Yeah.
Daniel Cwalina: First of the month, pension deposits, you’ll have a large segment of the population appearing at that time for their monthly benefit. And we understand that, that’s critical. And if everybody shows up at the same time from 8:30 to 9:30, social distancing is very difficult.
And not only that, it’s a populace that is most at risk in these scenarios. Most of the customer members that we have are of retirement age or older. So we have a heightened level of concern at that time.
Dr. Linda Ashar: You mentioned, and I can’t imagine anybody disagreeing, that this pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, I’ve heard things being said that it’s going to be spiking again this winter with people being more closed in. Are you comfortable with what you have in place if the numbers spike, or there are more orders, say out of Columbus, about more measures being taken by businesses?
Daniel Cwalina: I am concerned that for the safety of every person in this organization and our base and customer member base, that this could spike up. And if it does spike, we are going to continue to do what we’re doing. We are flexible. We have all the technology in place where you don’t have to come in if you don’t need to.
Now, Linda, one of the things that I experienced through this whole process is people want a sense of normalcy. They want to get back to the way life has been. And traditional banking is something that many people did that they enjoy doing. They enjoy coming in. They enjoy saying, “Hello.” It’s part of their schedule.
There are so many other ways that people can access their funds, whether it’s debit cards, Apple Pay, remote deposit capture for depositing checks. We have all that technology, but people do want to socialize somewhat. And when I say socialize, I mean, just get back to a time where you can walk into a financial institution, say, “Hello” to the teller and transact. And there is that desire.
So we’re going to continue to monitor everything. But once again, we’re not going to manage out of fear. We’re going to look at the numbers. We’re going to be very cautious. Everything that we’ve implemented and all the protocols we have in place are working for our organization.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Looking at the bigger picture of our business community, Ohio, and the United States at large, and maybe even globally, can there be a to what we thought of as the former normal?
Daniel Cwalina: I personally, from a pragmatic standpoint, not being in the medical field, we’ve all heard of herd immunity where it’s 60% to 70% of the population of the antibodies. I can’t see that coming anytime soon. We have 10% of the population throughout this country affected now, so I couldn’t imagine that being the answer.
We talked about and we’ve learned about, and we’re hoping for a vaccination, just the true volume of numbers to vaccinate the entire United States or the world. I just look at that is an insurmountable task that’s going to take a period of time.
I don’t see this ending anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong, but we have to prepare as if this is the new norm and we have to adapt and we have to have business models that work, and you have to find a way to be flexible. You really do.
And that being said, we’re in a type of a business model where we had an infrastructure that was conducive for that. It’s not going to work for all businesses, but I see some creative measures out there.
I’ve seen a lot of local restaurants that are doing carry out. They’re doing everything they can, and they’re just trying to do what they can to survive. And that’s all we can do is, we can reinvent ourselves.
We adopt the safety protocols. We do what we can.
You have to think out of the box. You have to deliver the service and products that people want. And I believe if you start doing that now, even if it’s very slow, as this becomes the new norm, people are going to start reintroducing themselves into the consumer market.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, that’s a very hopeful outlook, but I think it’s also realistic. So I appreciate you sharing that vision.
If a business person was to come to you and say, “How do I prepare for a pandemic in the future or a crisis in the future?” Because it might not be a pandemic. It might be some other problem that’s of huge import. What would be your advice?
Daniel Cwalina: I can tell you from my personal experience, I would have to say, you have to have the business culture in place. You have to have a business culture in place that’s supportive. You have to be visible to your staff. You have to be an on-site person to direct an organization that is dealing with all the fears and the anxieties of a pandemic.
You can’t reinsert yourself into that business model after not being there and caution everyone’s fears. It has to be an organization of transparency; it has to be an organization where people are empathetic and they care. It has to be a team organization.
If you’re an organization that regularly relies on input as a collaborative type of organization, you’re already working together. One of the key aspects of our success through this process is we were all able to get together. I didn’t have all the answers, nor did our management team, but we discussed what our goals were. We asked for input.
There was fear. This is something that we have never experienced before. And if it was up to many of us, it would have been safer for all of us and we would have felt better by closing the doors completely. But that’s not realistic, because this was not a short-term contagion. This was going to be something that was around for a long time.
So I think you have to have that infrastructure ready. You have to have the right culture. You have to build those teams. You have to be a true leader. You have to be visible; you have to be in the organization, talking to people.
They have to know you; they have to know your character and know that you’re going to take the necessary steps to protect everybody. And nobody in the organization should be more insulated than anyone else.
As I mentioned earlier, you hear the tagline, “Everything out there, we’re in this together.” You truly have to be in it together. You can’t have one group of staff members more at risk than others without being supportive and being right there and enacting the protocols necessary to keep everybody as safe as possible.
Dr. Linda Ashar: So the bottom line of that is you cannot just create a plan in writing, whether it’s digital or on paper, and put it in the proverbial file drawer and say, “There, we’re prepared.”
Daniel Cwalina: Not in a pandemic. No, you cannot. You can have a disaster contingency plan where you have all the file completes about offsite, hotspots, technology, phone lines, delivery channels. But anytime you’re looking at a situation where a person’s life could be at stake in a worldwide pandemic, this is all new.
You have to have the right culture. And that right culture has to be developed. And it’s who you are. Those companies that have the right culture will absolutely get through this pandemic and they will be able to do it successfully. Those that do not, it’s going to be a long road uphill, very difficult.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us on how you have managed this pandemic, because it’s an important one. And I think it’s very important to understand how one can successfully get through something like this. It’s doable.
If I could sum up a couple of things that really struck me, as you said, you didn’t let fear be the guiding light; you approached this as a complete team in your business with all of your people; and you kept trying things, and you were creative about what could work and how it could work. Am I right?
Daniel Cwalina: Yes. We saw this as a challenge. How can we outperform? How could we as a team? And Linda, you mentioned myself. It was all of us. It was all of us who came together in a collaborative manner. Every person in the organization, we openly communicated. There was transparency. How can we perform at the same level pre-pandemic, post-pandemic? What could we do?
Because this is what we have to do. We’re an essential business. People are relying on us. This is who we are. And we brought everybody together and we saw it as a challenge. And we’re an organization that started in 1936 by nine steel mill workers with a few pennies and who had ever thought 84 years later, we’d have $210 million in assets?
We are always an underdog. We were an organization that just really believed in ourselves. We’re a family organization. We practice empathy; we care about each other; we work hard; and we deliver services.
Everyone in this organization is guided to perform. And we have the infrastructure for that. So we saw it as a challenge and the adrenaline kicked in.
The fear was there; the adrenaline kicked in and we said, “How can we do this? How can we overcome? And how can we achieve the best results?” And it all came together.
Dr. Linda Ashar: I really appreciate you sharing this. It’s words everybody can take and apply. And that’s very valuable advice, Dan. Thank you for sharing yourself with us today. If you have anything you would like to add before we close?
Daniel Cwalina: Well, thank you. I appreciate being able to discuss what we’ve been able to accomplish. And I do truly, at this point, I want to give credit to the entire organization. From the Board of Directors to the front line, to every department, we did this together. It wasn’t one person.
It’s still very difficult, Linda. It is. That contagion is out there; that fear’s out there. We’re doing everything we can, but there is always a risk. And at this point in time, I just want to thank everybody in this organization for everything they did and truly it was a team effort. It wasn’t one person’s involvement or guidance over anybody else’s actions.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Thank you for sharing your time. I know how valuable your time is. So I really appreciate you being with us today.
Daniel Cwalina: Well, thank you, Linda. I appreciated it. I appreciated looking back and looking forward and sharing our experiences.
Dr. Linda Ashar: We’ve had the privilege of speaking today with CEO, Dan Cwalina about meeting the challenges of the pandemic. This is Linda Ashar, thanking you for listening. Please tune in again for more broadcasts.
About the Author
Dr. Linda Clark Ashar is a full-time associate professor of business, law and ethics in the School of Business at American Public University. Having practiced law in federal and state courts for more than 30 years, Dr. Ashar continues to manage her own law practice part-time.
An experienced litigator, her practice focus is employment and labor law, agriculture and equine law, public interest, and management consultation for businesses and nonprofit organizations. Dr. Ashar has represented both employers and employees. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Muskingum College, a master’s degree in special education from Kent State University and a Juris Doctorate in law from the University of Akron.